It doesn’t even have an official name yet — in any language — but the Cowichan Valley’s first all-French public school is up and running.
Currently going by the name École Duncan, the school opened in September with just six students, but it has bigger dreams.
Unlike in French Immersion, the program at École Duncan is designed for students from francophone families. Instruction is done entirely in French, and there is a focus on the cultures of the different families at the school.
“I think it’s important,” school principal Marie-Claude Carrier said. “It’s a gift for the kids to have all of their education in French.”
Only one student speaks just French at home, Carrier noted, but others were doing so more and more as the school year goes on.
“After three weeks, you can see a difference already,” she said. “They see us speak French all the time and hear us speak French, so it’s easier.”
The six kids are spread out between three grades: four in kindergarten, and one each in Grade 2 and 3. There is just one teacher, and one full-time education assistant. All the students will have science, for example, at the same time. The teacher will first explain the lesson to the kindergartners, then work with the Grade 2 and 3 students.
“Having an EA makes it easier,” Carrier said.
This isn’t the first time Carrier has helped start up a new French school. She was previously vice principal at École Victor Brodeur in Victoria, which serves students from kindergarten to Grade 12, and in 2015 she started an annex in Oak Bay, also with six students. Now known as École Beausoleil, that school was up to 64 K-3 students within four years.
Now Carrier is hoping to replicate that success in the Cowichan Valley.
“There are francophones,” she said. “We need to find where they are.”
There are definitely challenges to opening a new school, although it helps that Carrier has been through the process in the past. There are additional roadblocks this year, however.
“COVID doesn’t help, but the fact that we have six students helps us,” the principal said. “It’s easy with social distancing.”
École Duncan falls under the auspices of the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (CSF), which is the school board for all 45 French schools in the province, including seven on Vancouver Island. It is overseen by a superintendent and three assistant superintendents, each in charge of 15 schools.
“We feel really supported by the assistant superintendent and the board,” Carrier said. “They are in contact on a regular basis.”
In a normal year students would have field trips to things like the Galey Farms pumpkin patch or the salmon run at Goldstream Provincial Park, but they’ve had to replace those with collaborations over Zoom. As with any other school, École Duncan is about more than just studying.
“They’re learning not only academics but also social abilities and being able to function in the community as well,” Carrier noted.
The school currently shares the former Somenos Elementary building on Sprott Road with the Parkside Academy daycare, but even in that space, there is lots of room for expansion. Right now, it just consists of one classroom and one office.
“If I do what I did at Beausoleil, it’s going to grow,” Carrier said. “But it’s teamwork; I’m not doing it by myself. We are a team. The parents, teacher, EA and me. We are all in this for the kids’ education.”
The Parent Advisory Council had its first meeting in late September, and will be coordinating the search for a proper name for the school. An open house is also in the works for November.
The parents, who were behind the push for the school, are thrilled to have a francophone education option in the Cowichan Valley.
“All the steps they went through to have a French school, and now they have a French school,” Carrier said. “The kids and parents know how lucky they are.”
Mary Dougherty is one of those parents. After her son spent a couple of years on the wait list for French Immersion, waiting for spots in either kindergarten or Grade 1 to open up, her family was considering options outside of the Valley, or giving up French education altogether. She was part of a group of parents who made an official request to the CSF in December, which got the ball rolling.
Dougherty’s son Graham is now in Grade 2 at École Duncan, and her daughter Elaine is in kindergarten. It’s a relief to have the francophone school, as the family believes a French education is vital.
“You don’t have access to becoming military officers or high-level politicians,” she pointed out.
The school wants to grow, and interested families are encouraged to get in touch and pay a visit. For more information, visit duncan.csf.bc.ca